Because I’ve recently enjoyed reading poetry and because it’s poetry month, for my project book this month, I sought insights about poetry. How to Read a Poem (And Fall in Love with Poetry) by Edward Hirsch had been a national bestseller, and I loved the idea of being “tutored” in reading poetry. I can always use more motivation to “fall in love with poetry.”
How to Read a Poem gave me the motivation I desired. Hirsch speaks of poetry with ease and obvious pleasure. As a result, his essays about poetry just exude a “love of poetry” that is contagious (at least to me). Whenever I read poetry, I want to go and write my own. I am in awe of the ability to capture personal emotion and sensory experiences in perfectly crafted stanzas. Reading about how they are crafted only increases my admiration for the mode of writing. Although I still felt the craving to write poetry as I read this book, I also realized a sense of hopelessness in terms of my own creations: I’d rather simply admire other’s poetry.
Hirsch is, apparently, an accomplished poet. Obviously, he is also an incredibly well-read in poetry. These two aspects of Hirsch’s life gave the book a necessary depth and personality. He dosen’t write as an omniscient narrator: instead, he approaches poetry from his own life and experiences, and the result is heartfelt and intensely delicate. His passion for poetry is, I believe, why the second part of the title (“And Fall in Love with Poetry”) is what makes this book worth reading.
As a nonfiction tutorial in reading poetry, however, How to Read a Poem fell flat for me, the 100-page glossary/appendix notwithstanding (I didn’t read most of that). How to Read a Poem helped me approach poetry with greater admiration, but I honestly struggle with the idea of someone “helping” me read a poem. As I’ve read this, I’ve also been concurrently reading a volume of poetry (by Nikki Giovanni). It’s a well-annotated volume, with more than a hundred pages of end-notes explaining each poem, line by line, in terms of subject matter and style. I discovered that, while I’m normally a huge note reader, when it comes to poetry, I want to read poems for the enjoyment factor. I don’t necessarily need “help.” And if a poem is not either written well or intriguing in subject matter to engage my interest naturally, I am probably not going to appreciate the poem, footnotes of clarification not-withstanding.
That said, I will say that learning how poems are successfully formed does add to my appreciation for a poem. As I read the chapter about style (“A Made Thing”) and it discussed villanelles (a poem format that I absolutely love), I felt that seeing how the format created the emotional draw helped me to better love the poems. I “oohed” and “ahhed” over the villanelles. (Is there a collection or anthology just of villanelles? I must read it!)
Ultimately, although I enjoyed the enlightened foray into the “how’s” of poetry, I wouldn’t suggest How to Read a Poem as a tutorial to poetry. His expansive understanding and personal connection to poetry provides an intruging collection of essays about the subject, but he never seems successfully teach: he only inspires.
For me, that was more than enough. I have added many poets to my “to read” list!
How do you read poetry? Have you had any “training”?